Strategically assessing a contract

I’m now in that part of the semester when I teach contracts. It’s ironic that contracts was one of my least favorite subjects in law school but now it’s one the areas I most enjoy teaching. I’ve gained a strong interest in the subject since I’ve seen business success, contract drafting and negotiating all go hand in hand. None of that was taught in law school. Instead, we focused on abstract theories and cases that seemed far removed from everyday life and how business people engaged in the process of negotiating and deal making.

My approach to teaching contracts to business people integrates important doctrines with real-world examples and applications. From my perspective, contracting is another example of how the law can be used strategically. This leads me to the topic of how I teach people to engage contracts in a strategic manner. I view this as a fundamental business skill that can be followed in 5 steps:

1. Don’t be afraid to engage the document with a focused and critical eye. Read all the terms carefully and appreciate that nothing in the document is there by accident. Every word has a purpose and will have either a negative or a positive impact.

2. Not all terms are equally important. Identify the most important terms and rank them in order of most to least important. For example, in an employment contract it may be that salary, duration, the non-compete and termination are ranked among the highest. Be prepared to spend more time assessing and negotiating the key terms.

3. Assess the language of key terms to determine vagueness or specificity. Vague language offers more room for interpretation, which can be a good or bad thing depending on the circumstances. The opposite can be said of specific terms.

4. The best contract negotiators mark-up and edit the document with changes that reflect their preferences. This includes changing the language to be more specific or vague, striking unfavorable terms or modifying terms. Negotiating style and strategy can play an important role in this step.

5. Add language that’s missing. There is no such thing as a perfect or complete contract.

I always advise business people to engage in this practice to develop a strategic contracting legal capability, and of course to review the document with capable legal counsel just to be safe.

Legal strategy: The driver of legal change

Patent reform is back in the news as both the House and Senate have proposed their own versions of legislation in this complex legal area. The aim of patent reform is to further curtail the activities of the so-called patent trolls, which are companies that own patents, do not make any products and use patent law to sue large companies to collect jury verdicts or settlements. 

Since technology and innovation are growing in importance as drivers of wealth creation, it is natural that patent law would rise in importance. Since the economic stakes have increased, so have the stakes in the political and legal arenas. This could all be predicted by anyone who observes how powerful parties try to alter the legal and political system for their own advantage. From an academic standpoint, this was marvelously theorized and explained by the pioneers in the field of non-market strategy, who deduced the importance of engaging the legal, regulatory and legislative system as a form of strategic behavior. 

My recent writings in legal strategy support the view that law can be used to achieve competitive advantage. My most recent work addresses the abusive aspects of this practice and ways that can limit what I call “strategic legal bullying.”

What’s fascinating to me is that legal strategy is indirectly driving some important political wrangling in the current iteration of patent reform. From press accounts I’ve read, a hedge fund manager is using a transformative legal strategy to exploit a process to challenge drug patents while betting against the drug companies’ stock. Now, the drug companies want a legislative carve-out in place that would shield them from these administrative challenges. Their reaction to the hedge fund manager’s legal strategy is to change the law as it applies to their industry. 

What I’m starting to realize is that legal strategy has often been the agent of legal change, for better or worse. Think of Sony, Napster, Aerio, Uber, Tesla and the “patent trolls.” Their business models are closely tied to legal strategy. In some cases they successfully enacted legal change, and in other cases the status quo prevailed. The systems where this strategic behavior takes place is complex, consisting of companies, courts, administrative agencies, the media, and the legislature. Legal strategy lies at the core of the process and helps parties re-write the rules of the game, or at least try to do that.